The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “operationalize” operational?

Q: I noticed the word “operationalize” in an article about medical education in the March 20 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. But I can’t find it in my big dictionary at home, nor in my go-to computer dictionary. Is it operational?

A: The verb “operationalize” may be clunky and relatively new, but it’s a legitimate word, with roots in ancient Rome. As you’ve learned, though, not many standard dictionaries have entries for it.

One of the few dictionaries that does, the big Merriam-Webster Unabridged, defines it as “to make operational.” And Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), adds a second sense: to “put into operation.”

However, the verb has a very different meaning in academic and scientific writing, where to “operationalize” means to express something in measurable terms, such as mathematical symbols or operations in logic.

Because “operationalize” means one thing to ordinary people (if they’re aware of it at all) and another to scientists or academics, that usage in the medical journal is ambiguous when taken out of context.

When the authors of the article say that changes in working hours were “easier to operationalize,” they could mean (1) easier to put into effect, or (2) easier to express as a formula.

We’ve looked at the article, and the authors seem to mean #1. This more recent sense of “operationalize,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “to put into effect” or “to realize,” dates from the early 1980s.

Judging by citations in the OED, the term in this sense was first recorded in writing about education, then military affairs. Here are the examples:

1981:  “The head of the new … Centre for Curriculum Development, Training, and Research in Chile called upon the services of a former professor … to help operationalize and evaluate a new curriculum.” (From Connecting Worlds: A Survey of Developments in Educational Research in Latin America, by Robert G. Myers.)

1988:  “Mutual defence and mutual security were the reasons for the Philippines agreeing. … However, the MBA makes no reference to how these mutualities would be operationalised.” (From the journal the Pacific Review.)

1994:  “A number of Asian governments already had developed variants of ‘Comprehensive Security’ as a way to conceptualize, articulate, and operationalize their specific national and regional security and defence needs.” (From Canadian Defence Quarterly.)

The earlier, technical meaning of “operationalize”—to  express something in mathematical or logical terms—was first recorded in the 1950s. These examples in the OED are both from academic journals:

“No adequate methodological techniques exist for operationalizing and quantifying the characteristics themselves” (American Sociological Review, 1952).

“Attempts to operationalize the concept have met with difficulty of two opposing kinds” (Applied Linguistics, 1989).

The verb “operationalize” in all its senses was derived from the adjective “operational.” And like the verb, the adjective has meanings in both technical and everyday usage.

When “operational” was first recorded in the late 19th century, the OED says, it was a technical term meaning “of, involving, or employing mathematical operators or logical operations.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from an 1885 issue of the American Journal of Mathematics: “The forms of Boolian algebra hitherto used, have either two operational signs and a special sign of negation, or three operational signs.”

This more recent example is from a 2001 issue of the Bulletin of Symbolic Logic (2001): “It is useful to define the operational semantics of a language as a transition relation between states of an abstract machine.”

During the 20th century, “operational” came to have other meanings, in technical usage as well as in military and everyday language.

The common definition, in the words of the OED, is “in a condition of readiness to perform some intended (originally military) function; able and ready to function. Also in weakened sense: working, in use.”

All of these terms—along with words such as “operate,” “operator,” “operation,” and even “opera”—can be traced to the Latin verb operari (to work), from the noun opus (work).

As a point of interest, our word “opera” is etymologically the Latin plural of opus. In Latin, as John Ayto explains in the Dictionary of Word Origins, the noun opera “came to be regarded as a feminine singular noun meaning ‘that which is produced by work.’ ”

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